Social Justice Sewing Academy: Remembrance Quilt Project Book

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Episode Summary

Sara Trail is the founder of The Social Justice Sewing Academy -a non-profit organization that empowers individuals by using textile art for personal transformation, community cohesion, and social change. Sara joins the show to share her important mission of bringing social justice to the forefront of the sewing space. From uplifting our youth through the creative process to honoring victims of violence through community art, this is an important episode that demonstrates the power and impact that art can create. Tune in and listen to how Sara paves the way for social justice and how her community explores the issues of mass incarceration, gun violence, gentrification, and gender discrimination through powerful imagery.

Episode Notes

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Lisa Woolfork 0:17

Hello stitchers. Welcome to Stitch Please the official podcast of Black Women Stitch, the sewing group where Black lives matter. I'm your host, Lisa Woolfork. I'm a fourth generation sewing enthusiast. With more than 20 years of sewing experience. I am looking forward to today's conversation. So sit back, relax, and get ready to get your stitch together.

Hello, everyone, and welcome to the Stitch Please podcast. I am your host, Lisa Woolfork. And I am coming to you today with an incredibly amazing and talented and powerful organizer, Sara Trail is a so as she is a quilter. She has a long history, despite her youth, in this industry. She had patterns and a book when she was very young. And now she founded the Social Justice Sewing Academy as an organization in 2017. Fast forward to less than five years later and you get to hold in your hands, this gorgeous book, Stitching Stolen Lives: The Social Justice Sewing Academy Remembrance Project. It is a gorgeous coffee table book that is more than just looking. I'm so happy to welcome Sara to the program. We've talked before and work together in other contexts, but this is our first one-to-one podcast conversation. Like how'd that happen!? So congratulations for being here and for the book! And

Sara Trail 1:56

Thank you. Happy to be here.

Lisa Woolfork 1:59

So tell us a bit about what made you start the Social Justice Sewing Academy in 2017. What need Did you see that helps you begin the project in the first place.

Sara Trail 2:08

So I would say to sum it up historically marginalized groups of young people didn't have access to sewing. I'd say when you mix that with the lack of Critical Race Theory, as they're currently calling it in progressive education spaces, really just kind of a lack of critical curriculum that kind of allows them to tell things in their own lens, and values, their viewpoints and their experiences. Instead of just, you know, kind of the banking model of "here's the book, memorize it, regurgitate it back pass the test." But really, let's create a creative space where they can not only learn, but they can create, and they can write history, and they can tell their stories, and they can tell their lived experiences, and they can create art that, you know, has a purpose and a message and a voice beyond just the effect of creating art.

Lisa Woolfork 2:50

One thing I noticed is about the ways that you approach youth artists, and the way that you keep youth in mind. Do you believe that there's a certain responsibility for that to happen within art spaces in general, like if we're going to try to pass the quilting down or the sewing down or the needlework down, we have to uplift young people? Or is there something else in addition to that, that feels important to you about this.

Sara Trail 3:18

I would say yeah, beyond just giving them the tools and teaching them you can teach them your way, but also give them the tools to create and reimagine, and sew needlework, and so, you know, in what they want to do. I think often teaching them the quarter inch seam and teaching them, you know, this is how you do it. There's multiple ways of how you can do everything. But I think often sewing has a bit of rigidity that's been passed down. And in precision sewing, I mean, you can see it when you look at quilt shows and criteria and critiquing and judging and there's a right way, and then there's other ways. Sometimes just allowing young people to do the other ways and encouraging them while they do those other ways. And if they want to learn, you know, the traditional ways, they can.

Lisa Woolfork 3:57

One of the things I always admired about your project was that I came upon it in a time of great need for myself. In 2017, when you were busy founding your project, I was also doing a lot of racial justice organizing here in my own community organizing against white supremacy. And that summer of 2017, we call it now the summer of hate, because we had a klan rally or white supremacist rally every month. We had one in May, June, July, and then a big one in August. And that was when I was in a crowd of counter protesters and the car killed Heather hire and drove through. It was a nightmare. And so after that, I found that things had just shifted for me. And that while before I was fine to kind of deal with microaggressions and an all white sewing space, I had gotten kind of used to it, and that's just the way they are. Whatever. And it was no longer possible for me. I couldn't do it anymore. And so I was struggling. I was really struggling to figure out, like what to do, like how can I build something I need? And I read an article about the Social Justice Sewing Academy and about The Yarn Mission. And both of those are Black women led projects. And the Yarn Mission, they do knitting for Black liberation and your project about bringing social justice to the forefront of a Sewing Academy. It just felt like, okay, these are possibility models. Thank you for being a possibility model. And because I do consider you a possibility model for Black Women Stitch, your org gave me the idea, or just affirmed for me that this is something that can and should happen. I wanted to shift a little bit to talk about one of the first times we had a conversation. This was back in 2020, you had had your work demonstrated as part of the National Quilting Museum. So the National Quilting Museum, folks, is known in many quilting circles, at least in the United States. And it's a big deal to have your quilt there in the quilt show and they just use one word for it. "Paducah," right. It's like all of these things that go along with what it means to exhibit that museum in particular. So they invited the Social Justice Sewing Academy. Can you talk a little bit about that, about that experience about having your block invited. You weren't invited for a reason? What was that reason that you were there for?

Sara Trail 6:18

They wanted to bring kids art, you know, they really did a beautiful job. The museum President, Curator, everyone was super supportive of what we were doing bringing young people sewing. They appreciated the messages that were in the quilts. So they had a sampling of I'd say maybe eight to 10 quilts. They hung the exhibit up there, like great. And then they invited us to make a block for block month program they were having. And so we made a block. It said, "injustice" and, you know, it was erasing the I-N out of injustice, you know, to leave 'justice'."

Lisa Woolfork 6:44

It had an eraser. It was so cute. I think let's Melinda...?

Sarah Trail 6:48

Yeah, Melinda Newton designed the pattern, and I mean, it was a paper piece pattern. It was a simple message 'erasing I-N out of injustice, because the justice is the world we want to envision.

Lisa Woolfork 6:57

We do like justice. We tend to appreciate justice in America. They're very interested in that. Until it is justice for people they don't like.

Sara Trail 7:05

Paducah supported it and the museum internally, you know, loved it. But the clientele that kind of followed them really hit us with a lot of backlash on not only their disapproval, but their disagreement with the message, disagreement with injustice. It was really just kind of eye opening how fragile certain demographics of quilters can be. But more importantly, how unsettled they become from a blog designed by like a 16 year old.

Lisa Woolfork 7:28

I remember you saying that this was the most PG. G not even PG G rated block. I have seen blocks that talk about mass incarceration explicitly. I have seen blocks to talk about lynching explicitly. I have seen lots of talk about sexual violence explicitly. And you did not choose any of those. Now, even though these were done by children, you didn't choose any of those. You chose the one that you thought would make the least waves?

Sara Trail 7:55

Correct.

Lisa Woolfork 7:56

We have injustice. Let's take away the i-n and keep the justice. And let's just have a just society. Y'all when I tell you, them white women lost their shit. I have never participated so raucously in a Facebook discussion in my life. So much so that I called the museum. They were like, "well, who may I say is calling?" I talked to them, I said "put Frank on the phone." This man did not know me from a can of paint. I was furious. We ended up having a great conversation. It was fine. I was very clear about my position, which was they need to stand against racism. And they need to not give anybody that special honor thing for changing that block. You all. Go back and listen to the episode. I'm gonna put a link in the show notes to it. But it was episode 12. Now we're on episode 103. It was episode 12. Very, very early in our Stitch Please career. And it was absolutely amazing. And so then I had done the podcast episode, I believe. And then the Washington Post reached out. And that's when I had seen you, we had chatted, I don't know what it was, but I think I might have seen you talking about it on IG live or something. And I was like, "You need to call me. Here's my phone number." And she did. She called, and we have had each other's phone numbers ever since. And we are very good with each other and very good. I don't bother you with nonsense. You don't bother me with nonsense. We respect each other. We know we're busy. I just wanted to say that, y'all, when those white women lost it, and it was to a person- because you can see their profile pictures- so don't 'not all white women' me. This was a significant and substantial amount of hatred for this block. There were wonderful allies, I recall, who were pushing back. But the idea that somehow justice is debatable. And you know what else I think they were really upset about, they were upset about your Mike Brown quilt.

Sara Trail 9:53

That quilt of a murdered young kid had them upset. They didn't believe in it. They were saying 'thugs don't need this,' and it's like regardless of how you feel about someone, someone who didn't get an opportunity for a trial, a jury in a decision, you can't make a decision to pull a trigger. You can't judge someone in five minutes.

Lisa Woolfork 10:11

You cannot judge someone behind the barrel of a gun. That is not how justice in America is supposed to work. It really just exposed the really disgusting underbelly of American racism that lies beneath so many of our structures. We might want to imagine that the quilt world is this world of just art and light and happiness, and it has no politics or whatever. But all of that is carefully orchestrated, because the minute that you do something that makes the status quo uncomfortable, then you must be shunted or punished or something like that. It's just awful. But you were so gracious and so amazing throughout the whole process, and I was just so angry. I was so so angry. I was just like, 'this is wrong, and it should not be this way.' And then you started your own block of the month, right? So tell us about that. That was beautiful. Did Latifah Saafir designer block for you? And it was like Libs Elliot, I think, did a block. So tell us about your own block of the month program. I would not say in response, because we don't have to be reactionary. We are doing things because we know that they innate value. And just like the work of these kids, it has innate value whether that museum recognizes it or not. But you decided instead to say, 'you know, we're gonna do our own thing.' What was that? Like?

Sara Trail 11:28

I think really, he was really disappointed with a lot of the mean comments. And I was just like, 'You know what, I'm sorry that you're seeing the underbelly of the quilt world right now. And I know that there are a lot of other quilters that would applaud this block and would make it.' So I think other kids also were like, 'well can I do block of the month? Can I?' and I'm like, 'You know what, let's do our own series.' So I definitely wouldn't say it was made in reaction to it but was really inspired from the negativity of like, you know, but the people who did make it, and then the then posting it and the affirmation that comes from the young artists making something and then having it duplicated. Jealousy is like hate and love at the same time, but really more than jealousy, but copying someone is a really big form of flattery. I know that people who design things don't feel that way. And that's a copyright time. But if someone's saying, 'Here's a free pattern, please make' it you know, it's really affirming to see young people's designs made by really talented adults, and makers in general.

Lisa Woolfork 12:19

And that was one of the things I thought was so wounding that completely got overlooked in that entire debacle, was that a 16 year old or 17 year old named Leland had made that block. I remember his name because I ended up using an image of the block for a program that I did on anti-racist education. And so I made sure to credit him. But it was just like, 'Y'all a kid made this. Somebody's baby made this.'

Sara Trail 12:42

...and y'all are being really mean.

Lisa Woolfork 12:44

I don't think they would ever say to that child's face the things they said about that block.

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Can you share what the remembrance quilt project has brought to you and brought to the organization and how this represents a shift from some of the youth work that you've done? Or is it not a shift?

Sara Trail 13:50

You know, I see that the memory quilts are really made from a very different understanding and perspective in the sense of like the memory culture made to give families a gift ,and most quilts are made, you know, with the intent to be sold or given as a gift. But really, you know, who's gifting stuff to mourning mothers? And who's gifting stuff to those who are losing their kid? You know, like the quilt world, we all heard about Brianna Taylor, who volunteered to make her quilt? And her mom and her dad a quilt? And I think that in realizing how much we can do with textiles- reuse, recycling, all that is popular right now... going in thrift stores and buying used materials because you can is beautiful, and we should always sew sustainability when we can. But I think bigger than that, there's a lot of families who have lost their loved ones and they have clothes and they have memorabilia that they'd never wear. But you know, we can't bring their loved one back, but we can make them a gift. When babies are born everyone offers to make a quilt. But when people get murdered, not everyone knows the family to offer to make them a quilt. So I feel like they could just happen into the void and kind of fill that. 'Here. Here's a gift. We're here. We love you. We're sorry for that.' And if there's things we can do to help promote and fight for justice, we can also do that too.

Lisa Woolfork 15:00

It's really a beautiful way to use your platform to provide care to the community. And you're right that people do tend to get people you know, new babies, you get a quilt. Sometimes if you get married, you might get a quilt. But I think, because that murder is such a shocking, and such a violent stealing. As to stealing of a person's life, it just conjures up so much trauma and anxiety. And some people like, 'I don't know what to say', 'I don't wanna to say the wrong thing. What do I do?' And so to have a way to move forward, and to be supportive, I think, is really important. And also to model that we can show care through quilts beyond the celebrations. We talk about funerals all the time as celebrations of life. Except for NeNe Leakes, I've never seen a funeral that looks like a party.

Sara Trail 15:58

Very few exceptions. Agreed.

Lisa Woolfork 15:59

Very few exceptions. I think she did one for her husband, Greg, who passed recently. And so she did a big- I remember seeing it was a big, like- an actual party. And I'm like, 'That's right. Funerals are supposed to be celebrations of life, and everyone I've ever been to has been devastatingly sad.'

Sara Trail 16:13

I think when the lives are stolen, it becomes more of like shocking at the system that's stolen, instead of, you know, the natural celebration of life that you can kind of plan for or expect. Particularly when thinking about like, 'Oh, someone's 99, it'll be a celebration of their life.' But when your 21 year old is just snatched from you, you don't have the moment to celebrate their life because they never got to live it. They never got to experience it. The system took them from you. I think that a lot of the stories captured in the Remembrance Project book, really are those stories. And it's like you hear about their last five moments. You might hear about their grades. You might hear about the one time they got suspended in middle school, but really beyond the few negative things that media always likes to show to justify the murder and justify the lives being stolen. Who are these people? Who were they? What did they like to do? We all know George Floyd's face, but what was his favorite color?

Lisa Woolfork 17:06

The thing I like about what you are doing is you are recalibrating our ethics. Because you are right, if someone is murdered, especially murdered by police, they put the victim on trial.

Sara Trail 17:18

They have to start justifying why the system did what it did. Because the system is always right.

Lisa Woolfork 17:22

The system is always right. Because if the system is wrong, people will refuse to believe in it.

Sara Trail 17:28

Correct.

Lisa Woolfork 17:28

And if people refuse to believe in it, maybe it might be abolished, or radically changed. For you to say, 'you know what I care about this person's favorite color, this person lived, this person lived, they were alive, and they lived."

Sara Trail 17:43

right

Lisa Woolfork 17:43

For the state to step in, and the state agents of the way that the media helps to support these stories and circulate them, and help to generate this whole sensibility that we have, for you to step in and say, 'you know what, no, we're not. That's not the story.' That's not the story.

Sara Trail 17:55

We're gonna retell it. Let's let the families tell the story. Because at the end of the day, families are the ones that are experiencing it. But they're never getting to tell the story of who their loved one is.

Lisa Woolfork 18:03

I mean, I just look at these folks, and it's heartbreaking because they're all young, so many of them are younger than I am. So many. And that is, it's really painful. It's really painful to see.

I remember the way that you talked about the four categories that you use to honor folks, I'm just going to read a paragraph here, y'all. 'One goal of the Remembrance Project is to match the name of a victim with a volunteer who lives within a few miles of where the person was murdered. Therefore, volunteers are asked to research public information on the life that was stolen. Murder victims honored in the remembrance projects fall into several categories: authority, community, race, and gender." These are all of things people could be killed for, right. What was that process like? How did you get to this requirement that if someone was going to do a Remembrance Project block, they had to be connected in some way to that location.

Sara Trail 19:01

I think oftentimes people think, 'oh, it's not in my community, just because you might live in a gated super safe super primarily affluent community, doesn't mean that injustices aren't happening near you, too. And I think you just go 10-15 miles to the left, or to the right, or maybe North or maybe even 30 minutes, but nearby where you live injustices are happening. You just might not hear about it. So I think the intentionality aspect and the learning of the volunteers when making this, and yeah, it's an art project that's quilting, but really it's a heart project. It takes a lot to research and figure out what colors are. It's not simple. It's not like quilting where you're given all the instructions up front. It's really you have to do it yourself and do the learning yourself and do the research yourself. And I mean, it's emotionally draining. It's tough. You know, it's a hard process. I've heard so many volunteers how emotionally drained they were and how it took them longer than most things, and like imagine the pain of that exacerbated by a thousandfold. That's how these families are feeling. That's how these communities are feeling.

Lisa Woolfork 20:02

And this is one of the reasons that I just am so moved by the project. Because of the ways that it's something I've been thinking a lot about lately is Kevin quashy- I'll put the link in the show notes- has a book called "Black Aliveness, or The Poetics of Black Being." His critique is that we spend too much time in the academy of which I am a part as a scholar and a professor, talking about Black death, black necro politics, negativity. So basically, he's trying to shift from anti-Blackness, to Blackness. What is Blackness? Blackness is way much more than just survival. Right? We do more than survive. We have full, rich lives. These babies, these kids have full rich lives, if only you give them the chance to grow. It's like our kids, sometimes become ancestors, before they've ever had a chance to become adults. And you have these mourning families who are mourning the lives of young people, their own future being stolen from them. You've just done such a beautiful job of kind of tapping into a way for all of us to hold community responsibility for caring for these families full with the knowledge, with the scary knowledge, that this is something that could happen to someone in our family. This idea that this is not my problem, not my backyard, I don't have to deal with this kind of thing... This kind of thing is living in America. That's the kind of thing it is, it's not uncommon. I'm wondering, I guess about the life of the book now. What has your life been like now that the book is, I know that you were working on for quite some time, but now that it's here, what's it been like?

Sara Trail 21:50

You know, it's been like, 'wow, I'm really happy that we have the final culmination be able to show people.' I think more than just making the book, it's about encouraging people to, you know, be a part of the project. The book, as much as it is a display, an art gallery of what is, it's also a call in to invite quilters in and to invite people to join because the amount of families that are waiting for quilts compared to the amount of volunteers is like ten to one, and I'm saying that generously. It's more like 100 to one because all the names we have of quilters, we assign them as they come out. But it's harder to get quilters to commit to make a quilt than it is to get families who are calling, "I've been killed, my cousin, you know,..." It's like the communities of these people who've been through, there's a collective group. They know each other. They're mourning together, and they're grieving together. And they're fighting for justice together. And they're sharing, 'I just got this remarkable gift.' And then four other families call. And it's like really to invite cultures. This is the project. This is the purpose, this is the impact. And we really hope you'd sign to be a part of it.

Lisa Woolfork 22:51

I'm going to ask about where you're going to be exhibiting and what some call to actions are, so I can list them out for people. First of all, let's find out where you're going. Are you doing book talks? Is there a tour?

Sara Trail 23:02

Yeah, the book tour has been kind of postponed because of COVID. But we have a Santa Monica Pop-Up Show and book talk October 11. That'll be from 11-3 and the banners will be on display. And there'll be P. I. Q. F. in San Jose. You can come take a minute to look at the banners and perhaps sign up to do one. There'll be also on display in QuiltCon in February. There's a lot of community rallies that are like Eduardo's fighting for justice. His family needs them at the courthouse the day of his court date. So they're a lot less localized because they're more in support of how the families want to use them.

Lisa Woolfork 23:34

That is wonderful. I know previously, I listed fabric. I know that you might be collecting fabric. What kind of things you're collecting now- like do you still have that need for collecting materials? Do you just need money? Do you just need more people to quilt blocks? Like what do you need?

Sara Trail 23:50

All of them. Really making full quilts and definitely monetary donations, shipping the quilts to everyone you know, covering long arm for people who don't have those. But really, it's kind of just a calling to have people just engage

Lisa Woolfork 24:02

And so y'all, folks who are listening to this episode, I've been talking with Sara Trail from the Social Justice Sewing Academy about this amazing new and powerful book, Stitching Stolen Lives: The Social Justice Sewing Academy Remembrance Project. And she has put in some calls. She's put out some calls. Y'all can give money. You can give fabric. You can volunteer to make a block. You can do all of these things. I urge y'all to support and help this project maintain itself to get off, well I'm not gonna say 'get off the ground' because it is way off the ground. It is done by C&T Publishing, which is a leading publisher in the quilt world and the quilt community. And these personal stories, these personal stories that these quilts represent, Sara, thank you so much for that. The one question I had was the foreword by Hillary Clinton and Jesse Jackson, how did that happen?

I was raised in Chicago. I was raised with very activist parents. So Reverend has been a really close family friend. He considers himself like my godfather. So when I was doing the project, he supported it since forever. And he's like, 'of course, I'll write your forward.' And then Hillary Clinton is asked for a recent exhibit. So she is another amazing support, let's just say. And she also said, 'I'd love to write something for the foreword as well.' I was like, we can have two forwards.

Yes, you can have two forwards and they're both amazing. Good, good. And then I was gonna ask you about Bisa Butler, because-

Sara Trail 25:25

She's phenomenal.

Lisa Woolfork 25:26

Oh, my gosh, she is on my bucket list of people to get on the podcast. I've talked to her a couple times, like before the Chicago exhibit, before she became-

Sara Trail 25:34

so busy. It's not even funny.

Lisa Woolfork 25:36

Yeah, I am happy to wait. It sounds like y'all had a really great time. I love the combo.

Sara Trail 25:41

Chicago is fun. I went out there for friends and family. She's just phenomenal. She's a phenomenal quilter. And really, she's really kind of pioneering a different level of art quilting, particularly for Black women in a space that often hasn't been ours. So really, you know, like Faith Ringgold, she's gonna be another who kind of pioneers, just chisels forward so a bunch of people can follow in her footsteps. And I'm excited.

Lisa Woolfork 26:02

And a bunch of people can also follow in your footsteps, Sara. Thank you so much for being with us today. This has been amazing, and I am so grateful to you. Y'all, we've been talking with Sara Trail from the Social Justice Sewing Academy about this amazing new book. And congratulations, Sara, and thank you!

Sara Trail 26:21

Thank you.

Lisa Woolfork 26:31

You've been listening to the Stitch Please podcast, the official podcast of Black Women Stitch, the sewing group where Black lives matter. We appreciate you supporting us by listening to the podcast. If you'd like to reach out to us with questions, you can contact us at blackwomenstitch@gmail.com. If you'd like to support us financially, you can do that by supporting us on Patreon, P-A-T-R-E-O-N . And you can find Black Women Stitch there in the Patreon directory. And for as little as $2 a month, you can help support the project with things like editing, transcripts, and other things to strengthen the podcast. And finally, if financial support is not something you can do right now, you can really really help the podcast by rating it and reviewing it anywhere you listen to podcasts that allows you to review them. So I know that not all podcast directories or services allow for reviews. But for those who do, for those that have like a star rating, or just ask for a few comments, if you could share those comments and say nice things about us and this Stitch Please podcast. That is incredibly helpful. Thank you so much. Come back next week and we'll help you get your stitch together.

Hosted by Lisa Woolfork

Lisa is a fourth-generation sewing enthusiast who learned to sew while earning a PhD in African American literature and culture. She has been sewing for more than twenty years while also teaching, researching, and publishing in Black American literature and culture.

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